Preparing for a big earthquake or other disaster can pose extra challenges for people with disabilities and their families. But Justin Ross, the emergency preparedness program coordinator with the Oregon Office on Disability and Health at OHSU, said it’s worth taking the time to develop a personal preparedness plan because there’s no guarantee of immediate help from officials.

“According to FEMA, 80 percent of all ‘first responders’ are your friends and neighbors,” Ross said.

Ross recently responded to questions submitted by OPB audience members about how to tackle their own challenges. Here are highlights from that conversation.

If phones are down, what can a disabled person do to communicate?

“In order to increase our resiliency to disasters, we need to forge relationships with the folks around us,” Ross said.

He advises getting to know your neighbors, or identifying a local friend or family member who will agree to check on you soon after a disaster.

Because phone service can be intermittent during a time of crisis, it can help to designate an out-of-town contact that you and other local loved ones agree to call or send text messages to, Ross said. You may be able to call outside the area even when phone lines cannot handle local calls.

Ross also recommends designating a place in the community, such as a home or nearby landmark, to meet up with local people you will want to find after a disaster.

What should people who cannot go even one day without their medications or supplies know?

“The medication piece is a real concern for the emergency management community, but one that we haven’t found many solutions to,” Ross said.

Many pharmacies keep supply to a minimum and depend on getting frequent deliveries to make sure they have an adequate supply of medication – which could lead to medication shortages after a big earthquake or other disaster, Ross said.

He recommends that people who rely on medication to get by, such as those with diabetes or chronic pain, keep an extra 14 days of their needed treatments in reserve.

“My suggestion is that anyone that has this sort of medical dependency sit down with their primary care physician, as well as their pharmacist, to discuss their concerns,” Ross said. “A person may also want to plan on evacuation to an unaffected area, rather than staying in the disaster zone.”

Earthquake preparation tips

Suggestions from Justin Ross, emergency preparedness program coordinator with the Oregon Office on Disability and Health:

  • If you depend on medication to get by, talk to your doctor and pharmacist about securing a 14-day emergency backup.
  • Contact your local emergency management office and ask to see its evacuation plan.
  • Get to know your neighbors, who may be the only ‘first responders’ able to help for days, and possibly weeks, after a disaster.
  • If you’re in a powered wheelchair, consider getting a mechanical chair as a backup. If you can’t maneuver a mechanical chair on your own, identify somebody who can help, or research alternative ways to charge your powered chair.
  • If you rely on powered medical equipment, talk to your doctor about non-powered options or battery or generator back-ups. Make a plan to evacuate to a place with electricity if necessary.
  • Get a battery-powered or hand-crank radio so you can listen for information alerts.
  • Volunteer with your local emergency management agency before a disaster, to help make your community’s plans better.

Do local governments have a plan for providing emergency transportation for paraplegic people or others with mobility challenges?

“Most jurisdictions have some sort of evacuation plan in place,” Ross said.

But he adds that the details can vary widely depending on where you live. To find the specifics, he recommends that people in wheelchairs or with other mobility concerns contact the local emergency management office and ask to see the plan.

“Often, these plans have staging areas where people congregate to gain access to transportation,” which means people may need help getting to those staging areas, he said. “It would be best to get to know the people around you, and ask them if they would be willing to help to get to such an area in case of a disaster.”

How can people who rely on electricity to power their wheelchairs or their medical equipment prepare for possible power outages?

“Creating a plan on how you will gain access to power following a large earthquake is something that we all need to be thinking about,” Ross said. “Because there are so many different variances, it’s hard to know just what to do.”

He recommends that people who use powered chairs also have a mechanical chair as a backup.

“If you have limited ability to maneuver a mechanical chair on your own you will have to figure out alternative ways to charge your chair, or ensure that you have someone that will come and provide you assistance. I have heard of people that use an adapter that hooks into their car that can supply a limited charge. “

People who rely on other medical gear should talk to their physicians about whether there are non-powered alternatives that may be available in a disaster.

Some people may want to obtain a generator, though that’s not financially feasible for everyone, Ross said.

“If you have to have electricity, I would recommend evacuating to a place that has power and make sure that you bring your machine with you, and any charging peripherals you may need.”

The nearest hospital may not be the best place to go, he cautioned. “They may be under tremendous pressure due to a surge of injured patients, or they may be damaged and unable to provide care.”

Who is watching out for people with disabilities? What role does a “first responder list” play?

Many communities do have registries for people with additional needs. (Portland’s Office of Neighborhood Involvement says to sign up here in the metro area). But Ross cautions against putting too much hope in these lists.

“Registries are not a guarantee of early attention in a disaster, and should not be viewed as such,” he said. “The best plan is to create plans that are specific to you and your loved ones … without government assistance.”